Florida patrol defends decision that led to 10 traffic deaths

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 31, 2012 7:23 PM
Florida patrol defends decision that led to 10 traffic deaths

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Fla (Reuters) - The Florida Highway Patrol, criticized for reopening a highway early Sunday to traffic in low visibility that resulted in crashes killing 10 people, said on Tuesday that a supervisor made the decision to open the road because "it was clear."

Highway Patrol spokesman Captain Mark Brown said the fateful decision to reopen the highway would be reviewed as part of a formal investigation ordered by Florida Governor Rick Scott.

A series of accidents began 30 minutes after a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 75 south of Gainesville was reopened early Sunday morning. Ten people were killed and Shands hospital in Gainesville said it treated 22 people, eight of whom remain in hospital.

Visibility had been a problem Saturday night due to a combination of fog and smoke from a suspicious marsh fire that enveloped the highway. The Florida Forest Service said the fire was set on Saturday in Paynes Prairie either intentionally or accidentally.

"If arson comes up, we'll look at charges at that time," said Keith Kameg, spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is conducting the investigation.

Ludie Bond, spokeswoman for the forest service, said fire investigators still are trying to determine the exact cause and identity of the person responsible.

Brown said the Highway Patrol closed the interstate at 12:15 a.m. Sunday morning after an accident just before midnight. A Highway Patrol supervisor made the decision at 3:26 a.m. to re-open the highway "based on what they observed on the scene. It was clear."

Troopers stayed in the vicinity, Brown said. But from their position, "I do not believe they saw the initial change" in conditions before the crashes began. Fog and smoke enveloped the highway again, leading to the accidents.

Three people who died have not yet been identified because their bodies and vehicles were consumed by fire, according to an accident report released Monday. They were killed in a 6-vehicle pileup in the southbound lanes that also involved two semi-trailer trucks.

A separate 10-vehicle pileup in the northbound lanes killed seven people, according to an accident report released Tuesday. Among the dead were 4 people from one extended family: a pastor from Kennesaw, Georgia; his wife; his 17-year-old daughter and his brother. The pastor's surviving daughter, 15-year-old Lidiane Carmo, was taken to Shands Hospital in Gainesville. The hospital could provide no information on her condition.

(Editing by Greg McCune)